Department

Outside the Network

How medical tourism is making once prohibitively expensive medical procedures more affordable.

January 2011

 

Last year, robin lara flew more than 3,000 miles to see a dentist—in Costa Rica. Because her own insurance didn’t cover a series of dental implants she wanted, Lara decided to become just one more American to experience the growing trend of medical tourism.

Medical tourism—the practice of traveling across international borders to obtain health care—has become an increasingly safe and affordable alternative to finding care in the United States. The trend, which has bloomed over the past few years, makes sense for many patients who are seeking procedures that are often not covered by insurance carriers in the States. Major dental work, in vitro fertilization, and plastic surgery often top the list of desired services; however, more complex operations such as joint replacement surgery are available as well.

The Front Range has become fertile ground for start-up medical tourism companies, with several competing firms setting up shop in and around Denver in the past several years. These businesses follow different models but aim to provide similar services: access to qualified physicians outside the country and door-to-door travel arrangements. 

MedVacation, which is headquartered in Denver but caters to a nationwide clientele, promotes itself as a medical travel agent for individuals by finding, evaluating, and contracting with doctors in Costa Rica, Mexico, Russia, and elsewhere, and by coordinating travel arrangements. Although MedVacation, which opened just more than a year ago, is prepared to plan side trips and other travel extras outside the medical realm, founder and CEO Taras Kuzin says the “tourism” label is a misnomer, as most clients stay in the host country only as long as the procedure and recovery time require.

MedVacation’s list of services consists primarily of lower-risk procedures like dentistry and plastic surgery, but Kuzin says he could see his company offering more invasive procedures like cancer treatments and bariatrics in the future. “The first things we look for are lawsuits and a history of positive feedback from patients,” Kuzin says, adding that many of his doctors were trained in the United States. “We also visit the countries so we can watch the doctors work.”

The savings companies like MedVacation offer can be significant. Lara flew from her home in Sacramento, California, to Costa Rica for her dental work. MedVacation set it all up, including transportation between the airport, hotel, and dentist’s office. She’d been quoted between $15,000 and $20,000 for surgery in the States—none of it covered by insurance—but estimates she spent one-third to half of that through MedVacation. “The quality of the work is amazing, and the dentist was very friendly, professional, and sincere,” she says. “All anyone has to go on down there is their reputation, and they take that very seriously.” 

Another local company, Greenwood Village’s BridgeHealth Medical, works with companies of all kinds to get its medical travel services embedded in group health plans. “This business model is getting a great deal of attention because it lowers insurance costs by 20 to 40 percent for employers,” says co-founder and CEO Vic Lazzaro, formerly the CEO of UnitedHealth Care-Mountain States. “We’re offering the kind of service health-care reform is supposed to provide but won’t be fully in place for at least a few years.” Even large insurers are interested in the trend: Big boys such as Cigna and Blue Cross and Blue Shield have either added or are looking into adding medical tourism coverage to their insurance plans.

For those who can’t afford to wait for health reform to kick in, medical tourism may be the way to go. Industry insiders say clients should research a provider for its track record, roster of physicians, and guarantees in case something goes awry (MedVacation takes responsibility for all medical costs, including evacuating a patient back to the States if necessary). With so many companies in this increasingly crowded industry, consumers should have no shortage of overseas options.